See ‘Precious Leader Woman’ at Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour

Documentary highlights Canadian Olympian’s heritage, struggle with rheumatoid arthritis

“Precious Leader Woman” tells the story of Canadian Olympic snowboarder Spencer O’Brien. The documentary can be viewed as part of the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour.
Leo Hoorn/Kiddo Films

After being canceled in 2021 due to weather, the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center is bringing back the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour this weekend. What started as a small event has grown to reach over 550,000 people worldwide in approximately 550 locations in over 40 countries.

For the Breckenridge stop, all proceeds of the film festival benefit the outdoor education center’s programs for adaptive recreation. Door prizes will be awarded at intermission each night and audience members that vote for their favorite have a chance to win gift certificates.

Over 400 films entered into the annual festival, and the education center hand-picked 14 that are broken into two distinct slates of award-winning films and audience favorites. The movies center around inspiring tales of adventure, sports, the environment and more.

One of those films is “Precious Leader Woman.” Screening Friday, Feb. 25, it tells the story of Canadian Olympic snowboard Spencer O’Brien. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2013, just two months before the Sochi Winter Olympics and has since become an advocate for the millions of people who suffer from rheumatic diseases.

The movie also highlights O’Brien’s heritage growing up in the small village of Alert Bay, British Columbia, which has a large population of First Nations residents. O’Brien is part Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw on her mother’s side, and her advocacy continues through her work with Indigenous organizations. The film’s title is O’Brien’s Haida name that she was given in 2018, and 90% of the licensed music is from Indigenous artists.

Australian director Cassie De Colling was aware of O’Brien’s snowboarding accolades as a snowboarder herself, but it wasn’t until she visited Alert Bay while working on another documentary that she was inspired to do a feature on O’Brien. She saw the athlete featured in a museum and reached out about a documentary roughly three years ago.

If you go

“Precious Leader Woman” tells the story of Canadian Olympic snowboarder Spencer O’Brien. The documentary can be viewed as part of the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour. | Leo Hoorn/Kiddo Films

What: Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 25, and Saturday, Feb. 26

Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge

Cost: $25 for one night or $40 for both. Virtual tickets are $15 a night or $28 for both. Visit to purchase and view the full schedule.

“She’s the most dedicated person I’ve ever met,” De Colling said. “She has so much willpower and is just ruthless.”

The original pitch grew from a 15-minute short into a 45-minute feature, but the coronavirus pandemic slowed progress. It was eventually greenlighted in October 2020, and financing came in January 2021. De Colling conducted interviews with more than 30 people involved in O’Brien’s life — friends, family members, elders, coaches and competitors — on Zoom while O’Brien did filming in the backcountry.

“She was at a time in her career where she was sort of transitioning into the backcountry and moving out of competitive snowboarding like X Games and Dew Tour and being on the world circuit to, ‘OK, how am I going to monetize riding the backcountry’ or ‘What does riding the backcountry mean?’ And that metamorphosis started putting her more in nature, reflecting by herself and understanding and unlocking some of that trueness to the land that comes with being Indigenous,” De Colling said.

De Colling then crafted a timeline and narrative to guide the production of O’Brien’s story. They shot reenactments in Whistler, such as when O’Brien crashed at X Games, working out in the gym and more. De Colling wanted to make the story of people chasing their childhood dreams as relatable as possible.

“There were points where I literally thought I had lost my mind thinking I could pull this project off and times when I didn’t feel worthy to have my story be brought to life,” O’Brien said in a statement. “In the process, we told my story in a way I could have never foreseen, and throughout that, I found a part of myself I didn’t know was missing.”

Spencer O’Brien was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2013, just two months before the Sochi Winter Olympics. O’Brien has retired from competitions but now rides in the backcountry.
Leo Hoorn/Kiddo Films

The dream of perseverance and success resonates with De Colling, as well. She dealt with rejection to film schools for three years straight. She was driven by the challenge to be able to make the snowboarding and environmental films she always wanted.

“It’s like you’re always getting a B when you want to get an A,” De Colling said.

“Precious Leader Woman” is De Colling’s first commissioned movie. De Colling also does commercials, but she finds documentaries quicker and easier to shoot. She enjoys making them with small crews — especially if it involves a snowboarding film, to better navigate terrain and conditions — as well as having the freedom to experiment.

Most importantly, she makes documentaries because she wants to give a voice to those who don’t have a platform. The purpose behind the films spark her curiosity, and for De Colling, it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time to discover subject matter that clicks into place.

Female empowerment is also a major theme in her work.

“Precious Leader Woman” deals with Canadian Olympic snowboarder Spencer O’Brien’s Indigenous roots. The name of the documentary is O’Brien’s Haida name.
Leo Hoorn/Kiddo Films

“It’s just something I really resonate with,” De Colling said. “Again, it’s like lifting women up and helping working with each other to get to the front of the stage. It’s something I care a lot about, and I want to keep pushing that far and changing perception of equality.”

The Banff event isn’t the first on the festival circuit for “Precious Leader Woman,” and the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival and Salt Spring Documentary Film Festival are scheduled for next week. A distribution plan is still in the works, but De Colling said she enjoys how the film tour connects the documentary with small communities all around the world. She can’t make it to every event — and she won’t be in Breckenridge — but she gets notes from viewers who appreciated the work.

“Those people would never have been able to see the film if it was just playing in the bigger festivals at bigger cities,” De Colling said.

Though the in-person festival is only two days, two other film lineups are available to watch virtually. The movies can be digitally rented through Oct. 23.

Australian director Cassie De Colling made “Precious Leader Woman” after visiting Spencer O’Brien’s hometown Alert Bay in British Columbia, Canada. De Colling strives to use her films to give people, especially women, a platform.
Kelly Russ/Courtesy photo

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